Robert L. Drew, the Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and father of American cinéma vérité, died Wednesday of natural causes at his home in Sharon, Conn. He was 90.
After fighting in World War II and working at Life Magazine, he formed Drew Associates in 1960 to produce his own style of journalistic documentary films. Drew helped develop what is known as cinéma vérité or direct cinema, which he referred to as reality filmmaking. Those films turned candid footage — no narrating, no directing subjects — into dramatic, authentic narratives. As such, Drew and his associates re-engineered camera and sound recorders to gain the necessary mobility to capture real events in real time.
Their first film was Primary, which followed then Sen. John F. Kennedy as he campaigned for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960. Three years later, they produced another film about Kennedy, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, about his supporting racial equality and integration in Alabama. It featured candid scenes in the Oval Office, the only time a U.S. president has allowed independent camera access to film deliberations. Both films are part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as works of enduring importance to American culture.
Drew’s other prominent films include The Chair, from 1962, in which a lawyer saves a man from the electric chair, and Man Who Dances, which followed New York City Ballet’s then-premier dancer Edward Villella and won Drew an Emmy Award in 1969.
In his career spanning more than 50 years, Drew made more than 100 films. He garnered numerous accolades, including the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award, the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize, First Prizes in the Venice Film Festival and 19 Cine Golden Eagles. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences holds Drew’s entire collection in its archives.
Drew is survived by his three children and three grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held in Sharon, Conn., on Aug. 3. A memorial service will be held in New York City at a later date.